Krapar & Kini

Armenian Alphabet
Նշանագիրք հայերէնի

The Armenian alphabet was created in 405 a.d. by the vard­apet Mesrop Mashtots‘ (Մեսրոպ Մաշ­տոց).1 At the time, the liturgical language of the incipent Arme­nian Church was Syriac,2 which hindered Arme­nian missionaries in their work of propagating Christianity throughout the various regions of the land, still largely under the sway of Zoroastrianism. Because of this, Mashtots‘ and Catholicos Sahak Partew (Սահակ Պարթեւ) realized that an alphabet was necessary to translate the Bible into Arme­nian, and to perform the sacraments of the Church in the people’s native tongue.3 They brought this to the attention of King Vṙam­shapuh (Վռամ­շապուհ), who instructed Mashtots‘ to find a suitable alphabet.4 Mashtots‘ travelled to Syria with his pupils, meeting with clerics and scholars from the Syrian school in Edessa and the Greek school in Samosata. After a period of difficulties, he succeeded in his letter-engen­dering endeavors.5 With his task completed, Mashtots‘ returned to Armenia with the new 36 letters (նշանա­գիրք, lit. “symbol-char­acters”).6 Mashtots‘ and his associates then began the monumental work of translating the Bible, and other Syriac and Greek works, into Armenian.7 According to his pupil and later biographer Koriwn (Կորիւն), the first words written with the new alphabet were Ճան­աչել զիմաստ­ութիւն եւ զխրատ, իմանալ զբանս հան­ճարոյ, “To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding” (Prov. 1:2).

Armenian Alphabet
Letter Name Tran.8 Pronunciation
Ա ա Ayp a a as in father
Բ բ Pen b p (unaspirated) as in spot
Գ գ Kim g k (unaspirated) as in skip
Դ դ Ta d t (unaspirated) as in stop
Ե ե Yech e ye- as in yell in initial position
e as in bet
Զ զ Za z z as in zebra
Է է E ē e as in less
Ը9 ը Ut ĕ uh as in but
Թ թ To t‘ t (aspirated) as in top
Ժ ժ Zhe zh zh as in pleasure
Ի ի Ini i ee as in queen
Լ լ Liwn l l as in lamb
Խ խ Khe kh kh (gutteral) as in Scottish loch
Ծ ծ Dza ts dz as in heads
Կ կ Gen k g as in good
Հ հ Ho h h as in hotel
Ձ ձ Tsa dz ts (unaspirated) as in what’s up?
Ղ ղ Ghad gh gh (gutteral) as in Baghdad
Ճ ճ Je ch j as in jump
Մ մ Men m m as in map
Յ յ Yi y h- as in home in initial position10
y with a vowel in a diphthong
usually silent in final position11
Ն ն Nu n n as in now
Շ շ Sha sh sh as in ship
Ո ո Vo o vo- as in vote in initial position
o- as in over in initial position when folowed by վ
o as in boat
Չ չ Cha ch‘ ch (aspirated) as in match
Պ պ Be p b as in boy
Ջ ջ Che j ch (unaspirated) as in matchbox
Ռ ռ Ra r as in run (but slightly rolled)
Ս ս Se s s as in sip
Վ վ Vev v v as in vat
Տ տ Diwn t d as in dog
Ր12 ր Re r r as in run
Ց ց Tso ts‘ ts (aspirated) as in hats
Ւ13 ւ Hiwn w v as in David in final position, or when followed by a vowel
w sound – see ու, աւ and իւ letter pairs below
Փ փ Piwr p‘ p (aspirated) as in pot
Ք ք Ke k‘ k (aspirated) as in kit
Օ14 օ O ō o as in own
Ֆ15 ֆ Fe f f as in father
Ligature Tran. Pronunciation
(ե + ւ)
ew yev- in initial position
ev as in seven
Letter Pair Tran. Pronunciation
ու16 u oo as in boot in final position, or when followed by a consonant
v as in cover when followed by a vowel
աւ17 aw o as in bone when followed by a consonant
av as in java in final position, or when followed by a vowel
իւ iw yoo as in yourself when followed by a consonant
eev as in Steve in final position, or when followed by a vowel
այ ay ay as in eyelid
-a as in java for most words ending in -այ
ոյ oy ooy as in Louisiana
-o as in slow for words ending in -ոյ
եա ea yah as in yacht
եօ yo as in yolk
էա ēa ey-ah
էի ēi ey-ee
իա ia ee-ah as in aleluia

1 Koriwn (Կորիւն), the pupil and later biographer of Mashtots‘, does not use the name Mesrop in his History of the Life and Death of the Blessed Man Saint Mashtots‘ Vardapet Our Translator (Պատմու­թիւն վարուց եւ մահուան առն երան­ելւոյ սրբոյն Մաշ­տոցի վարդա­պետի մերոյ թարգ­մանչի), commonly known as the Life of Mashtots‘ (Վարք Մաշ­տոցի), which was written between 433 and 450 a.d. The name Mesrop does not appear with Mashtots‘ in the written record until some time later, and its origin is uncertain. One account relates that local residents near his tomb began to refer to Mashtots‘ as մեր սերովբէ, “our Seraph”, which later devolved into մեսրոպ.

2 Syriac is the literary language that arose from the Aramaic dialect of the region of Edessa (Ուռհա, Uṙha) and Nisibis (Մծբին, Mtsbin), which became the liturgical language of Syrian church.

3 There were also political reasons for the creation of the alphablet. At the time, the Kingdom of Armenia no longer existed as an independent realm, having been partitioned in 387 a.d. by the so-called Peace of Ekegheats‘ (Եկեղեաց) between the Sassanian (Persian) Empire and the (Eastern) Roman Empire, whereby the eastern four-fifths of Armenia became a client kingdom under Persian control, and the western one-fifth became a Roman province. In addition, Syrian bishops were seeking to increase their influence over the emergent Arme­nian Church in the Persian-controlled east, and Greek (Eastern Roman) bishops were seeking the same in the Roman-controlled west. Thus a unique Arme­nian alphabet would not only facilitate the proselytization of Christianity in the land, but help maintain the autonomy of the Arme­nian Church from encroachment by the Syrian and Greek churches, and help preserve the national identity of the Land of Arme­nians (աշխարհ Հայոց) under foreign control.

4 According to Koriwn, Vṙamshapuh initially told Mashtots‘ and Sahak of a Syrian bishop named Daniel who had letters of an Arme­nian alphabet. This alphabet was sought, found, and brought to Armenia. “However, after realizing that the letters were not sufficient to wholly express the syllables and articlations of the Armenian language—especially since these letters were culled and resuscitated from the literatures of other peoples—they then returned once again to their same concern, and for some time sought a way out of the predicament.” (Koriwn, The Life of Mashtots‘, exerpt translated by Jesse S. Arlen, in Walters, J. E., ed., Eastern Christ­ianity: A Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub­lish­ing Com­pany, 2021.)

5 “Thus [Mashtots‘] patiently endured many labors in order to invent a means of help for the good of his nation. And to him the state was granted by the God of all graces: in the manner of a father to give birth to a new and wondrous offspring, letters for the Armenian language, by his holy right hand. And then he immediately composed, engraved, and named them, arranged them in syllables, articulations, and sonorous signs.” (Ibid.).

6 The original 36 letters created by Mashtots‘ were those from Ա to Ք, with only one form for each letter (which became the upper-case forms upon the later development of lower-case forms). In the late 11th or early 12th century, the letters օ and ֆ were added (see Notes 14 and 15 below).

7 The Armenian Bible was originally translated from the Syriac Bible, and later re-translated from the Greek Bible during the period of the so-called “Hellenizing School” (Յունաբան դպրոց) of the 6th–8th centuries. The Arme­nian Bible is unique among those based on the Greek, since it contains some elements of the earlier translation from the Syriac.

8 The transliteration of Arme­nian letters herein uses the Library of Congress system, a commonly-used standard which represents the Arme­nian letters using the Latin alphabet. The LC system is based on the phonetic values of Clas­sical or Eastern Armenian; however, the letter names and pronunciations in the table are based on modern Western Armenian.

9 In general, the letter ը is only used in the initial position of certain monosyllabic words (e.g., ընդ), and words derived from them by nominal composition (e.g., ընկալիմ). The uh sound often occurs before or after a consonant without a written letter ը (e.g., զսուրբսն, pronounced uz-soorp-sun). The letter ը is occasionally used with a consonant when a vocalized syllable is needed for rhythmic meter, or when sung in a hymn (e.g., ըզՏէր, նըշան, Տեառըն, etc.).

10 The letter յ is also pronounced h in compound words where the յ is the initial letter of a stem word in the compound (e.g., անյատ, pronounced an-had).

11 In the final position of a monosyllabic word, the letter յ is pronounced as the -y component of the diphthong (e.g., հայ, pronounced hay).

12 Very few Arme­nian words begin with the letter ր, and of those that do, most are of foreign origin.

13 No Armenian words begin with the letter ւ.

14 The letter օ was added to the Arme­nian alphabet in the late 11th or early 12th century, to replace the letter pair աւ in words where its Clas­sical pronunciation as the diphthong aw had shifted to the monophthong o (e.g., զաւրու­թիւն became զօրու­թիւն). The letter pair remained in use for words in which pronunciation of the letter ւ shifted from w to v (e.g., the spelling of հաւա­տով remained unchanged). Additionally, the Instrumental plural suffix -աւք became -օք.

15 The letter ֆ was added to the Arme­nian alphabet in the late 11th or early 12th century, to represent the foreign sound of f. Prior to this, the sound was generally represented by the letter փ, especially in loan words from Greek having the letter φ (e.g., փիլի­սոփայ, “philosopher”, from the Greek φιλό­σοφος). After the introduction of the letter, words with the f sound would be written with ֆ or փ, depending on the scribe’s customary usage. For example, during the Cilician period, Arme­nian scribes often designated a Western European person by the word Frank, spelling it either as Ֆռանգ or Փռանգ.

16 The Clas­sical pronunciation of the letter pair ու, as the diphthong ow, either shifted to the monophthong oo (e.g., սուրբ, pronounced soorp), or the ո became silent (or kept a slight uh sound) in those words in which the pronunciation of ւ shifted to v (e.g., Աստուած, pronounced Asd-vadz). In much later texts, the letter pair ու with a v pronunciation would sometimes be written as ըւ (e.g., Աստուած, written as Աստըւած).

17 See Note 14 above.